March 11, 2014 – What started as an experiment with 200 postcards turned into a life-changing project for Michele Norris, host and special correspondent for NPR. She started the Race Card Project as a way to begin a new conversation about race and cultural identity, and now thousands of submissions from postcards, the web and Twitter all make up a large database of thoughts, ideas and voices.
The Race Card Project “condenses a big topic into just six words,” Norris explained. People choose six words that they associate with race, and write them on a postcard or submit them online at theracecardproject.com. At first, Norris noticed that the responses (30% of all the postcards she sent out) were “inspirational,” vague and innocuous. But then, she said, “something happened, and the conversations became deep.” People began submitting words and phrases that were much more honest and intimate. It provided access to conversations “that I would have never been privy to” on public radio, Norris said. She explained that when you visit the website, “you will most certainly see something that will make you uncomfortable…but you will be enriched by the experience because you will understand life as lived by someone else.”
Throughout the course of the project, the “experiment has taken us to interesting places,” Norris said, and listed several examples of perspectives and ideas that she never would have associated with people’s assumptions about race. Themes like slavery, adoption and borders are common threads throughout the submissions. “This has been an education for me as a journalist and as a human being,” she said.
Norris admits that the project is “not a panacea—it won't solve anything, and it won’t heal race relations.” But the important lesson is that, instead of focusing on “what is said versus what is heard,” this conversation “is about listening and providing a space where people can listen to someone else.” She hopes the project will live on as an archive, documenting an “interesting moment in American history.”
Article and photo by Janell Sims, Shorenstein Center.